Maybe you didn’t. Here’s how I lost mine…
As I sit at my desk on Christmas Eve eve in Asia, the humming air conditioner reminds me that I’m in a steamy tropical country, far from the notion of a white Christmas in the West. And if the wall of heat and humidity didn’t disabuse me of any winter wonderland fantasy I might be entertaining, then living in a Muslim country should finish it off, right? The wavering call to prayer from the mosque competes with the occasional unavoidable Christmas music that comes up on Pandora. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire….BismAllaaaHHHHaaaaHHHaaaa….” Muslims are big on Christmas, actually. They do, after all believe in Jesus. And Kuala Lumpur is where Arabs come to do their Christmas shopping. So how come I’m not at the mall snapping my selfie in front of Santa and the Christmas tree?
My friend Rob and I were having an email chat about losing that childlike wonder about Christmas. Playful rumination from one bitter queen to the next, perhaps. As children we both used to take such pleasure in putting up holiday decorations. I loved it all. The music, the cookies, the Peanuts and Dr. Seuss Christmas shows, the relatives, the turkey dinner. Then there was the anticipation of the big night when we 3 boys would go to bed and pretend to be asleep while the parents quietly stuffed gifts under the tree (as if we hadn’t seen them piling up in the closet). Then late in the evening, my Italian grandmother would rattle the sleigh bells and yell, “Ho ho ho!” and we’d throw open the door and run across the blue sculpted carpet to the living room to see that “Santa” had dumped a payload of gifts beneath our plastic tree from Sears.
At some point one of us ungrateful kids would speak the unspeakable words — the sword right to the heart of any breadwinner: “Is that all?” Imagine what my poor parents must have thought. I think even I, the junior master of indelicacy, knew one shouldn’t say such a thing. But I did. Then my father would storm out of the house pissed off at the insensitivity of 3 consumerist ingrates who couldn’t be at all sensitive to the fact that our parents were trying to raise us brats on a teacher’s meager salary. Welcome to lower middle class suburban American Christmas hell. It was that way in the 70s and 80s when I was a kid. It’s even worse today.
Dad and Tippy the chihuahua.
Christmas morning was spent trying out the new bicycle, skateboard, or remote controlled flying thing (we would later call a drone) that ran for a couple of hours on giant D-cell batteries and then would invariably fail and never be used again. Probably 90% of all the gifts beneath the tree ended up in the trash within a couple months.
Mom did (and does to this day) have a love for holiday music. It was Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Mantovani. It started usually the week after Thanksgiving, around the time the big fake tree was erected in front of Maas Brothers department store at the Edison Mall in Fort Myers, our home town in Southwest Florida. And she would put it on as we all went about our holiday decorating chores: untangling the blue and gold tinsel and the big bulbed lights from the previous year, finding which bulbs were burned out, assembling the tree and placing the angel at the top. We listened to the stories each year of how we as kids smashed all the glass bulbs when we lived in California. Mom and Dad awoke to the sound of popping noises and laughter. Only a couple dowdy vintage bulbs survived the Christmas day massacre of the bulbs.
Monsters or angels? You decide. That’s me in the foreground, my older brother Michael in back (youngest Sean is in the crib).
Mom did the holiday baking weeks before the big day and would stamp out hundreds of Christmas cookies to nibble on for weeks. We kids would help make them, rolling out the sugary dough and using the bell- and tree-shaped cookie cutters. We sprinkled the colorful sprinkles and dusted them with sugar. Decorate one, eat one, was my philosophy. Then there was Mom’s favorite: the Mexican wedding cookies, little domes rolled in powdered sugar. As a young teenager, I mastered the art of making a gingerbread house in a tropical climate. I drew up the plans on paper and then I baked the living daylights out of my gingery panels until they were inedibly crisp but strong enough to hold up the house in the humidity. I decorated and mortared the walls together with royal icing. I was obsessed with making the house more ornate and perfect than the year before.
Christmas dinner was a banquet of mushy foods with the Butterball turkey at the center of the white formica table. For a kid it was pure pleasure. No need to chew anything or handle a knife and fork — just shovel it in with a spoon and swallow. Mom always had a bottle of André cold duck sparking light red wine at the ready…served with ice because it was Florida.
Mom in the kitchen. “I don’t celebrate Christmas for the spiritual aspects. I celebrate it for the commercial aspects,” she once told me.
At some point though, Christmas stopped being magical. But maybe it wasn’t really a point so much as a progression, a whittling away of an illusion. I witnessed my obese ‘ho ho ho’ grandmother going blind from diabetes and a life of sweets. I saw the rage in my father’s eyes about our ingratitude. I heard some statistic about the numbers of convicted pedophiles that were hired to play Santa Claus in shopping malls.
As a young gay boy I think I liked sitting on Santa’s lap a little too much. That’s me on the left and my brother Michael on the right who doesn’t appear to be enjoying the ride as much.
Then there was the statistic about the percentage of consumer goods that ends up in the trash, the discovery that the marshmallows in the sweet potatoes were full of high fructose corn syrup, the cookies were laden with heart-stopping hydrogenated oil, and the turkey had been raised in a cage with its beak burned off and shot full of hormones. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir it turns out, is rife with inbred homophobes. My own choral conductor, Betsy, would have temper tantrums and scream at us as we prepared for the Christmas concert, “Stop! Now sing with joy for God’s sake, this is CHRISTMAS!” as she banged her baton on the podium. Then I got chicken pox one year stranded in the Dallas airport on the way to my folks’ for Christmas. My holiday glow that year got dimmer and dimmer as my temperature rose to 104.
And as the years went on, the invitations to Christmas parties and the Christmas cards dwindled to almost zero as I declared I was not Christian and asked why I should celebrate the birth of a person I care nothing about? The guilt of giving overpowered the joy and I stopped sending any cards or buying any gifts for anyone. One year at Trader Joe’s, overwhelmed with the onslaught of Christmas everything, I complained to the manager that the Christmas music was offensive to Jews. He turned it off and I went about my grocery shopping in guilty silence. Not only did I steal everyone else’s musical pleasure, but I lied. I’m not Jewish. I delighted in telling cashiers that I don’t celebrate Christmas when they would inevitably wish me Merry Christmas after my purchase. I liked wilting their smiles. And thus on December 25th each year, the Christmas Curmudgeon was born and would declare bah humbug on all you well wishers.
Not surprisingly, as result of becoming a supreme seasonal cynic (or was I just being a realist?) I’ve ended up spending a few Christmases alone wondering why I couldn’t shake the holiday residue. How could I make myself so miserable? Remember, this is the HAPPIEST TIME OF THE YEAR! The twinkly Christmas lights of my childhood were coiled up and thrown into the scary closet of my mind. And that’s where my Christmas spirit resides today…a burned out memory in a musty old box.
It’s interesting being 50 and being in a relationship with someone 27. Young people by nature tend to be a bit less cynical. They smile more and are more daring about life — willing to give the wrong gift, make an imprudent impulse purchase, throw a party and invite everyone they’ve ever met. They can get excited about things that long ago ceased to thrill the rest of us geezers. This is why I like younger guys. Does anyone really want to be a cynic? Not me. I sort of can’t help it given my lethal combination of idealism, pragmatism, and perfectionism. But I don’t like being cynical, honestly. And younger people cheer me up — if I’m willing to let myself thaw a bit on the inside.
And this year I find myself thrust up against my young Chinese boyfriend’s youthful holiday glow. Chuan is not really Christian and so I’m not having to fend off a Christmas tree and matching Santa hats. But he has invited his whole family over to my apartment for Christmas Eve dinner. Now that’s really something to get excited and nervous about. He has just come out to them, revealing that Christmas Eve dinner will be served at his BOYFRIEND’s apartment. Not only will I be on trial but so will my cooking. From Western chef to Eastern mouths. Oy vey, the relatives are coming, the relatives are coming!
Scrooge set forth brining the bird the night before and roasting the vegetables and the chicken in the toaster oven in 3 batches (my apartment doesn’t have a real oven). This is my tiny 2 burner stove. On it I made a big batch of borscht, mushroom and fennel gravy for the roasted root vegetables.
And an all time favorite — deviled eggs with smoked paprika…
Plated up, this is what it looked like.
And then they arrived. I was exhausted from cooking all day. But I’d say it was a success. No one really raved about my cooking, but I’ve come to understand that the Chinese are hard to please. Or maybe it’s just that they’re not particularly expressive about something when it does please them. No one walked out. No one asked me how much rent I pay. Everyone ate everything, and that would classify it as a successful dinner party with gracious guests.
And in the end I didn’t really feel that I and my cooking were on trial. They treated me kindly and seemed to welcome me into their family, not as a marauder come to take their beloved son/brother away. What I heard were invitations…to come to the brother’s restaurant sometime and try his food, to join his mum for a vegetarian Chinese meal at her favorite place.
I accept. I’d love to.
And speaking of spoiled rotten American brats, here’s a bunch of them at Christmas pitching tantrums because they didn’t get the gift they wanted. I would actually like to adopt the kid who liked the potato he got…